Architects of Change
850 Magazine recently reached out and asked some of the region’s leaders – Rick Marcum, Mel Ponder, Jerry M. Ray, Ray Sansom, Susan Story and Al Wenstrand – about what the future holds for Northwest Florida. By Gary FineoutArchitects of ChangeBy Gary Fineout
There’s no doubt that Northwest Florida is on the verge of tremendous changes. In less than two years, the first international airport built in the United States since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is scheduled to open in Panama City. The region is becoming a leader in alternative energy projects. And Okaloosa-Walton College has recently become Northwest Florida State College, a recognition of the school’s push to become a four-year institution. These efforts come in conjunction with a new marketing effort to trumpet the fact that the region boasts some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. 850 Magazine recently reached out and asked some of the region’s leaders – those who will have a say in shaping these changes – about what the future holds for Northwest Florida.
Marcum, 60, has been at the helm of Opportunity Florida for nearly six years. The group is an eight-county regional economic development alliance focused on strengthening existing businesses in Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties. Marcum spent time in the private sector as well as being in charge of previous economic development efforts, including one in northern New Mexico.
What is your vision of Northwest Florida in the next five to 10 years? RM: I think that in the next five to 10 years, international trade will go ballistic in Northwest Florida … It’s going to be amazing. You bring something into Miami, there’s anger waiting in line to get in and get out. Plus all the fuel costs. People are going to look at strategic logistics, and I think that’s where North Florida will hit a home run.
What are the critical needs that need to be addressed to encourage development of this region? RM: Some are very obvious. We don’t have a lot of “spec” buildings, we don’t have venture capital and folks ready to put something out there and hope it will get used and leased. I think there are new national developers we need to come and address the needs here. I think we need to start looking at the global market much more than we have in the past.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the region’s infrastructure? Is there a need to four-lane another east-west route such as Highway 20? RM: Right now we have enough roads. Before we do that, there are a lot of other inadequacies we need to address, especially the need for broadband access. That’s not a luxury. Small businesses in many rural counties just don’t have broadband – dial-up is all they can get. I’d rather us get that cured before we get Highway 20 four-laned.
Do you have a view on offshore drilling? RM: It’s not an immediate cure for anything. I am a strong believer in that we look at alternative sources. I don’t think they ought to do it two miles offshore, but we ought to look at it. I just don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg with these beautiful white sands.
In view of rising housing and health care costs that especially affect lower-income workers, what can be done to provide housing and health care resources to this work force that will support growth in Northwest Florida? RM: Opportunity Florida has had an affordable-housing initiative; we are all about to close our first house. We did a study … and in my eight counties we had a shortfall of rental units. When all these people came in, they didn’t run out to Marianna and Quincy and start building affordable housing. It was not being addressed, so that issue is still in front of us. One of the elements that really can enhance medical outreach is an initiative to connect all the rural hospitals to the major ones like in Tallahassee and start data banking between doctors and hospitals.
What is the long-term outlook for Port St. Joe? RM: It depends on getting the infrastructure in place. We have to have a project that justifies someone waiting. If they had the patience and come in and say, “We will commit three and a half years to get this project ready and here’s the economic justification” – if that ever happens, then happy days. Gulf County would change forever.
What are some key environmental concerns that should be considered as the region develops? RM: I would like to see some sort of mass transit from Tallahassee to Pensacola, so we don’t have to keep building roads and roads. I think that would be a tremendous impact on the environment. If there was a viable way to get from Tallahassee to Pensacola or Destin or Fort Walton Beach that you could depend on, the positive impact would be tremendous.
Mel PonderPonder, 40, was this past June named executive director of Coastal Vision 3000, an organization formed to promote the Northwest Florida region as “The Beach.” Ponder spent four years on the Destin City Council. He also has held positions in the banking and mortgage industry, including serving as senior vice president of the mortgage division of the Bank of Bonifay.
What are unique features and strengths of this region that will encourage its development? MP: We have some cornerstones in the region – first of all, the accommodations. We have 100,000 to 120,000 rooms in our seven-county region. We have dining, shopping, and one of the things also is ecotourism … The beaches are another unique feature. We have areas in our region that will remind people of what Old Florida is about, with the real pristine beaches that are conservatively and tastefully developed.
With the new airport, how long will it take for true international travel to develop, and what countries or areas are most likely to connect through the airport? MP: We would ideally love international airlines to consider the Panama City airport. We could talk to them until we are blue in our face, but it’s going to be based on their own models. We met with Air Canada; they have shown an interest in our area. We talked with British Airways and we did talk with Lufthansa, but because we don’t have a large corporate interest we would not be in their market.
In view of the rising costs of housing and health care that especially affect lower-income workers, what can be done to provide housing and health resources for this work force that will support the growth of Northwest Florida? MP: You have a higher cost of living whether in Destin, Panama City Beach or Pensacola Beach. Work force housing is critically important to the longevity of our region. It’s going to take some collaborative agreements between governments. I know the city of Destin is reaching outside to other cities and counties. Working collectively is the one thing to do.
What can state government do to encourage suitable development in Northwest Florida? What should it not do? MP: I believe in the free market. Less government involvement allows the free market to develop. We need their involvement to help guide us; obviously we want their support. But it is one of those Catch 22s. We want them to learn what we are doing, but we want the local cities and counties to have the most control.
There is a new effort to present a unified picture of the Emerald Coast (“The Beach”). How can this encourage greater awareness from outside the region? Are there limitations or challenges to this marketing approach? MP: The biggest thing is people will see us as a unified front. We have people who say, “We love your beaches, you have some of the best beaches in the world, but you have one of the most fragmented markets around.” If you build a halo brand, you can market yourself and, as well, it also works as political power.
What is the long-term outlook for Port St. Joe? MP: The long-term outlook is very healthy and positive. They are not looking to become a huge metro area, but they want steady, conservative growth. They have incredible history there; they have all kinds of ecotourism opportunities. I think the outlook for Port St. Joe is very positive, but is very conservative.
What are some key environmental concerns that should be considered as the region develops? MP: The environmental concerns are air quality and water quality and making sure we don’t lose the natural habitat we have. There are some people who complain you are making Destin a concrete jungle. The last thing we need to happen is to let overdevelopment happen.
Jerry M. Ray
Jerry M. Ray, 59, is senior vice president of The St. Joe Company and a member of the executive board of Florida’s Great Northwest Inc.
What is your vision for Northwest Florida in the next five to ten years? JR: The vision of any one person is far less important than the collective vision of the people who live in Northwest Florida. To be successful, we will need a wide range of leaders to step up to the daunting task of building a collective vision for Northwest Florida and then implementing it. The Florida and Northwest Florida economies are weaker than they have been in some time. But rather than focusing on the weaknesses of this precise point in time, we should focus on the foundation of what we can build in the next 10 or 20 years. If we are unified in our vision, progress will be almost immediate. As a region, we need to think about a smart investment strategy that builds on our strengths and positions us all, as much as possible, squarely in the path of global growth for the decades ahead.
What are unique features and strengths of this region? JR: Northwest Florida offers more strengths than is possible to list in this space, but here are four examples of important ones: The beauty of this region’s beaches is legendary. There is no place more beautiful in this country – and quite possibly the world. Our beaches draw millions of visitors each year, but we’ve only begun to tap the potential. There is plenty of opportunity to grow the market, extend the season to year-round and expand our geographic reach to become a national and international destination.
Northwest Florida has some of the world’s most important environmental assets. The area around West Bay has been called a “bio-gem,” and is recognized as one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. St. Joe has been the steward of these lands for decades, and we believe we’ve done an excellent job protecting and preserving more than 40,000 acres there.
At the top of any list of Northwest Florida strengths are the vitally important missions of the Panama City Navy Facility, Tyndall and Eglin Air Force Bases, Hulbert Field and the Pensacola Naval Air Station.
We have a critical mass of trained, highly skilled aviation and aerospace workers in this region. We need to work with these bases to build out the community support system necessary to help them fulfill their missions and bring diversity to our economy.
We have a chance to be a leader in world trade, logistics and just-in-time delivery. Our two most important transportation assets must be linked to connect Northwest Florida to the global economy: a new international airport and a rediscovered deepwater seaport. The new Panama City-Bay County International Airport is expected to open in 2010. It has been designed to claim the unofficial title of “America’s Greenest Airport.” It is being built in the 75,000-acre West Bay, which has significant land for residential and commercial/business development as well as conservation.
In 1914, when the original Panama Canal neared its grand opening, the leaders of a town called Harrison, Fla., recognized their geographic advantage. In fact, Harrison was renamed Panama City that year for the express purpose of marketing its proximity to the Panama Canal. It was one of the Panhandle’s first regional marketing efforts. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina disrupted the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Mexico, the almost forgotten deepwater port, the namesake of the Panama Canal, was discovered again.
Now, with an expansion of the Panama Canal construction, this transportation asset is fully operational and processing 50,000 TEUs (or shipping containers) annually. There are significant opportunities to revitalize and expand it. Much of the economic future of our region rests squarely on our stewardship of these four strengths. They must be operated and developed for the benefit of the region.
What are the critical needs you see that need to be addressed to encourage the development of this region? JR: The most important word in your question is the word “region.” Outside observers too often call Northwest Florida “fractionalized.” We have been. And our fractionalism has held us back in every endeavor. We have many critical needs. But one of the most critical is the need to function more as a coordinated region. Regionalism is universal and will help us address all the other needs. We have to work together to accomplish things we cannot do on our own. And we have to focus on making investments in the things that will provide the best long-term returns in jobs and quality of life for the region.
Let’s begin first with the region’s most obvious strength: We need to double-down our efforts at promoting The Beach. And we should do it now.
Second, we need to focus on attracting new jobs and expanding the industrial base in areas where we are already strong. We need to double-down on our aviation, defense and security assets. The time to make this investment is now.
Third, we need to be really smart about maximizing the benefits from our regional infrastructure assets. We need to double-down on transportation infrastructure. We need to improve and market Port Panama City. It is the entire region’s connection to the global economy. We must focus on improving accessibility to this region by air. We need to think of air service from a regional perspective. More and more, airlines are looking to local communities – particularly local business organizations – as partners. Strong regional support is becoming a pre-requisite to hold and win new service in a market like this one.
Fourth, the environmental beauty of Northwest Florida is an important strength to be leveraged. At St. Joe, we have been very pleased to work with Audubon on a proposed nature center, and we see this as a tremendous opportunity for the entire region. In addition, with the input and leadership of local environmental leaders, the West Bay Preservation Area was established and with the construction of the new airport, the permanent protection of West Bay was ensured. This preservation area will permanently protect more than 40,000 acres, including 44 miles of undeveloped shoreline along West Bay and an additional 33 miles of creeks and tributaries that feed the bay.
We need to regionalize our approach to the environment and make it a part of our region’s brand promise.
Sansom, 46, this fall will become speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. First elected to the House in 2002, he is an economic development representative for Alabama Electric Cooperative. Sansom, a Destin Republican, also spent eight years on the Okaloosa County Commission.
Do you think that a regional approach to our challenges and opportunities is possible, particularly in these difficult economic times? JR: Though economic conditions are difficult today, we must stay focused on the future. Northwest Florida has come so far in ten years. For some, this may feel like the test of faith. We have incredible potential. But we will not fulfill that potential by accident. It will take extraordinary leadership, sometimes under very difficult circumstances.
What are the unique features and strengths of the region that will encourage its development? RS: The potential is unlimited for a few reasons. First, the natural beauty of the beaches and the waterways we have. We have a strong military presence and the projection of growth in our military bases. Our land is still reasonably affordable for people to invest in and for businesses to come in … And the other aspect is that people in Northwest Florida work well together, across county lines and across city lines. We are pretty happy when we get jobs here and don’t get caught up on where the jobs are.
What are the critical needs that need to be addressed to encourage development of this region? RS: Roads. We have to make sure we stay ahead of the curve on road construction. The airport has been addressed. We need to work to improve the seaports we have in Panama City and Pensacola. We need to make sure our work force is trained. That’s why the state college system is so important.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the region’s infrastructure? Is there a need to four-lane another east-west route such as Highway 20? RS: I think there’s need for a bypass for U.S. 98 and to widen Highway 20. I absolutely see a need to widen 20. The weakness of widening U.S. 98 is you have expensive property on either side, you have water in some places, you have military bases, and you have the downtowns of cities. That’s why a bypass is more of a realistic alternative. A lot of work has been done with the military to discuss that, and we’re moving ahead with the need for that.
In view of rising housing and health care costs that especially affect lower-income workers, what can be done to provide housing and health care resources to this work force that will support growth in Northwest Florida? RS: Two years ago, the Legislature funded the Mike Davis Work Force Housing Innovation Pilot Project. It incentivizes the need for work force housing. Among the projects is one in Walton County that is specifically designed for police, emergency personnel and teachers. It’s going to be critical that we see that program grow and keep the vision of Mike Davis alive. (Davis, a state representative who pushed affordable housing issues, died in September 2007.)
What can state government do to encourage suitable development in Northwest Florida? What should it not do? RS: What it can do is not exhaust people by being so bureaucratic and burdensome to people who want to bring their business here. We want to make sure there aren’t so many hoops to jump through when they want to come here.
Do you have a view on offshore drilling? RS: Right now the state has jurisdiction from the shore to nine miles out. Congress is talking about offshore drilling. Part of what makes Florida attractive is our natural beauty, and we just have to be very careful as we move forward. I am a big supporter of reducing the dependency on foreign oil, but the way we go about it is also important.
What are some key environmental concerns that should be considered as the region develops? RS: The waterways are what make Northwest Florida; the Gulf, the bays, streams and rivers. While we have a desire of having an industry come in and provide jobs, we have to keep in mind our natural beauty and protect it. We have to be mindful of why people come here. We have in the past done a good job of balancing the need for growth and the natural beauty.
Story, 48, is president and CEO of Gulf Power Company, a subsidiary of Southern Co., one of the largest producers of electricity in the United States. Gulf Power has more than 400,000 retail customers through Northwest Florida. Story first joined Southern Company as a nuclear power plant engineer. She is chairwoman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
What is your vision of Northwest Florida in the next five to 10 years? SS: I am very optimistic about the future of our region … We have a unique and diverse economy in Northwest Florida, and we have leaders throughout the region who are willing to step up to the challenges. We are especially strong in three areas of future growth which will result in high-value, high-wage jobs: military and homeland defense, our evolving role in life sciences and human performance enhancement, and aviation and aerospace. These opportunities will be further enhanced with the new international airport under construction in Bay County. A fourth area poised for growth is in the biomass alternative energy arena.
What are unique features and strengths of this region that will encourage its development? SS: Our military installations in Northwest Florida have strategic value. Much research and development for the military occurs at these bases, and the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition also does the majority of its work for the Department of Defense and NASA. We have an emerging presence in the life science area, focusing on “human performance enhancement.” Spending in this area will continue to increase – not just for military applications and professional athletes, but for aging baby boomers who want to continue to stay healthy and fit.
What are the critical needs you see that need to be addressed to encourage the development of this region? SS: Developing and retaining a qualified work force must be a top priority. In a high-tech, knowledge-based economy, we need as many educated workers as we can possibly get. This means more engineers and scientists, as well as having highly skilled and trained technicians, craftsmen and medical professionals.
In view of the rising costs of housing and health care that especially affect lower-income workers, what can be done to provide housing and health resources for this work force that will support the growth of Northwest Florida? SS: One positive side of the falling housing costs over the past year has been that homes are getting more affordable. However, we need partnerships between government and private investment to develop affordable housing opportunities which will be critical to attracting and keeping the people we need for our economy.
What can state government do to encourage suitable development in Northwest Florida? What should it not do? SS: I believe that government’s role is to provide a strong, business-friendly climate and provide for smart infrastructure growth and business development which are controlled but not bureaucratic and time-consuming. We must balance a healthy, competitive tax structure with the basic needs of government. And we need predictability so that businesses know what they are getting when they come here.
What are some major cultural additions to the area (performing arts, museums, etc.) that are either likely to come or that you would like to see come? SS: Cultural amenities and the arts will continue to be critical in our development. We have wonderful museums, theaters and arts centers across our entire region, and I believe that we need to pursue more projects such as the Maritime Park in Pensacola, which will revolutionize the downtown area.
What are some key environmental concerns that should be considered as the region develops? SS: It is critical that we grow smarter than we have in the past, protecting our precious natural heritage while we grow. We must also ensure that we maintain the affordability of energy and other cost-of-living components as we protect the environment.
Wenstrand, 57, has been president of Florida’s Great Northwest for nearly five years. The private, nonprofit organization is a regional economic development group that represents 16 counties in Northwest Florida. Prior to going to work for Florida’s Great Northwest, Wenstrand was director of economic development for the state of Nebraska.
What is your vision of Northwest Florida in the next five to 10 years? AW: We’re looking for a Northwest Florida in the next five to 10 years where the average income is at or above the national income. We have a cost of living that is very close to the national average, but a wage that is 72 percent of the national average. We have a population that is spending a lot of its income meeting its needs.
What are the unique features and strengths of the region that will encourage its development? AW: That’s a little tougher question. There are features here that I don’t think are unique, but they are very strong here and I hope we will take advantage of them. The open spaces, for one. We are different from the rest of Florida. We have a large supply of water, but probably the biggest strength is the military presence and the associated research and development activity – activity that is spinning out technology and products in non-military applications.
What are the critical needs that need to be addressed to encourage development of this region? AW: One is our human infrastructure. Everything is going to more technical and analytical thinking. The ability of our work force to adapt to that is critical. We have to build foundations to support it. We have to support the innovation infrastructure in the area. That includes the education resources, improving the ability of capital, including venture capital and having an environment that embraces entrepreneurship.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the region’s infrastructure? AW: Outside of the urban centers, telecommunications infrastructure is the one that really bothers me more than anything else. The broadband availability is not there in the rural areas. Telecommunications infrastructure is really one of the priorities.
With the new airport, how long will it take for true international travel to develop, and what countries or areas are most likely to connect through the airport? AW: We couldn’t be building an airport at a less opportune time. Having it done two years ago would have been a lot better, especially when you look at oil prices and jet fuel prices and airlines cutting back flights. That said, I think this airport is a critical opportunity and one of the biggest opportunities in two decades. I think you will see international activity in 2010, but it’s going to be charter activity out of Europe and South America. It will take longer to get into commercial activity.
In view of rising housing and health care costs that especially affect lower-income workers, what can be done to provide housing and health care resources to this work force that will support growth in Northwest Florida? AW: I like to turn that question around. Housing, health care, property taxes and business climate issues are certainly a concern, and we should not ignore them. But what we look at from our vantage is, “How do we develop a diverse work force?” Our real focus is on creating those jobs that are high-wage and knowledge-based so people can live and work in the same community.
Where is the region likely to see industrial growth and when? AW: From an economic development standpoint, we are not as concerned with industrial growth as overall economic growth. Once economic development was industrial development, but that’s not the model anymore. What we are going to get are prototyping, research and development activities.